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Local groups rally support for Syrian refugees

With the number of Syrian refugees climbing above 4 million, local Jewish organizations are taking note and reaching out.

Jewish World Watch (JWW), whose mission is fighting genocide, recently launched a fundraising campaign that has collected about $10,000 to help fund fully vetted organizations that are aiding refugees, JWW president and co-founder, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, said.

And The Markaz Arts Center for the Greater Middle East, previously known as the Levantine Cultural Center, is organizing an Oct. 10 fundraiser, Soup for Syria, Food and Arts Festival. 

Jordan Elgrably, executive director at The Markaz, said he expects the event to raise $50,000 and to draw around 300 people. 

Kamenir-Reznik said in an Oct. 1 phone interview that images produced by the Syrian refugee crisis of “trapped people overloading train stations and people with nowhere to go” are too reminiscent of the Holocaust to ignore.

“Not only are the metaphors of the Holocaust poignant to us, but people did feel there was an atrocity in the making,” she said. 

The new JWW campaign marks the first time that the Encino-based organization, which was founded in 2004 and focuses the bulk of its work in African countries, has involved itself in the Middle East. 

For Elgrably, the motivation was humanitarianism. The Markaz’s event near downtown Los Angeles will benefit more than “1,000 Syrian refugees, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Karam Foundation — an American nonprofit that has been working in Syria for nearly a decade,” according to the center’s website.

“We see this as a human crisis, not as an Arab, Jewish-American or Middle Eastern one. … We’re doing it at the Pico Union Project. It’s [musician and producer] Craig Taubman’s place. It’s a synagogue and multicultural interfaith space, and I think it’s a good location for what this is about,” Elgraby said in an Oct. 5 phone interview.

The event borrows its title from Lebanese-American editor Barbara Abdeni Massaad’s 2015 cookbook, “Soup for Syria,” which features contributions from food writer Mark Bittman, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and others. The book will be on sale at the fundraiser, with proceeds from book sales benefiting UNHCR. Other revenues at the event will benefit the Karam Foundation, according to the Markaz website. Meanwhile, Elgrably said singer-songwriter Norah Jones has tentatively agreed to perform at the gathering. 

“This is an opportunity for The Markaz to be on the record doing something for Syrian refugees,” he said.

L.A. Jews for Peace, Muslims for Progressive Values and CodePink are among the organizations sponsoring the event, whose details are available at themarkaz.org.

“I would say Jews are pretty well represented in this effort,” Elgrably said.

Neither JWW nor The Markaz plans on tackling events happening inside of Syria, however.

“We specifically did not agree to mobilize with respect as to what’s going on inside of Syria. … We try to stick to clear-cut situations, to help the most vulnerable,” Kamenir-Reznik said. “It’s not controversial to say these refugees are in a vulnerable situation and, from just a human point-of-view, need assistance and advocacy. We’re not equipped to get involved in a multiparty civil war [that involves] terrorist organizations.”

JWW has posted a message about the crisis on its website (jewishworldwatch.org) and has provided a link where people can donate to the campaign. It has also sent out an email with a message about the campaign to its membership base. 

And while it may not be getting involved in Syria’s internal situation, JWW is demanding that the U.S. increase the number of actual Syrian immigrants allowed into the country, which has committed $4.5 billion in assistance for refugees. President Barack Obama has pledged to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, but that pales in comparison to the 800,000 that Germany has agreed to accept. 

“We don’t think it’s adequate, in light of the enormous amount of refugees being taken in by everybody else,” Kamenir-Reznik said of America’s response.

“That’s the extent of our campaign, that type of advocacy: mobilizing support for people who are in not-so-different circumstances [from what] Jews have been in throughout history, fleeing disaster in their own country and having nowhere to go.”

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